The Young Forester by Zane Grey
V. The Sawmill
In my surprise I almost forgot the Mexican. Then I thought that if Dick were there the Mexican would be likely to have troubles of his own. I remembered Dick's reputation as a fighter. But suppose I did not find Dick at the sawmill? This part of the forest was probably owned by private individuals, for I couldn't imagine Government timber being cut in this fashion. So I tied Hal and the pony amidst a thick clump of young pines, and, leaving all my outfit except my revolver, I struck out across the slash.
No second glance was needed to tell that the lumbering here was careless and without thought for the future. It had been a clean cut, and what small saplings had escaped the saw had been crushed by the dropping and hauling of the large pines. The stumps were all about three feet high, and that meant the waste of many thousands of feet of good lumber. Only the straight, unbranched trunks had been used. The tops of the pines had not been lopped, and lay where they had fallen. It was a wilderness of yellow brush, a dry jungle. The smell of pine was so powerful that I could hardly breathe. Fire must inevitably complete this work of ruin; already I was forester enough to see that.
Presently the trail crossed a railroad track which appeared to have been hastily constructed. Swinging along at a rapid step on the ties I soon reached the outskirts of the huge stacks of lumber; I must have walked half a mile between two yellow walls. Then I entered the lumber camp.
It was even worse-looking than the slash. Rows of dirty tents, lines of squatty log-cabins, and many flat-board houses clustered around an immense sawmill. Evidently I had arrived at the noon hour, for the mill was not running, and many rough men were lounging about smoking pipes. At the door of the first shack stood a fat, round-faced Negro wearing a long, dirty apron.
"Is Dick Leslie here?" I asked.
"I dunno if Dick's come in yet, but I 'specks him," he replied. "Be you the young gent Dick's lookin' fer from down East?"
"Come right in, sonny, come right in an' eat. Dick allus eats with me, an' he has spoke often 'bout you." He led me in, and seated me at a bench where several men were eating. They were brawny fellows, clad in overalls and undershirts, and one, who spoke pleasantly to me, had sawdust on his bare arms and even in his hair. The cook set before me a bowl of soup, a plate of beans, potroast, and coffee, all of which I attacked with a good appetite. Presently the men finished their meat and went outside, leaving me alone with the cook.
"Many men on this job?" I asked.
"More'n a thousand. Buell's runnin' two shifts, day an' night."
"Buell? Does he own this land?"
"No. He's only the agent of a 'Frisco lumber company, an' the land belongs to the Government. Buell's sure slashin' the lumber off, though. Two freight-trains of lumber out every day."
"Is this Penetier Forest?" I queried, carelessly, but I had begun to think hard.
I wanted to ask questions, but thought it wiser to wait. I knew enough already to make out that I had come upon the scene of a gigantic lumber steal. Buell's strange manner on the train, at the station, and his eagerness to hurry me out of Holston now needed no more explanation. I began to think the worst of him.
"Did you see a Mexican come into camp?" I inquired of the Negro.
"Sure. Greaser got here this mornin'."
"He tried to rob me in Holston."
"'Tain't nothin' new fer Greaser. He's a thief, but I never heerd of him holdin' anybody up. No nerve 'cept to knife a feller in the back."
"What'll I do if I meet him here?"
"Slam him one! You're a strappin' big lad. Slam him one, an' flash your gun on him. Greaser's a coward. I seen a young feller he'd cheated make him crawl. Anyway, it'll be all day with him when Dick finds out he tried to rob you. An' say, stranger, if a feller stays sober, this camp's safe enough in daytime, but at night, drunk or sober, it's a tough place."
Before I had finished eating a shrill whistle from the sawmill called the hands to work; soon it was followed by the rumble of machinery and the sharp singing of a saw.
I set out to see the lumber-camp, and although I stepped forth boldly, the truth was that with all my love for the Wild West I would have liked to be at home. But here I was, and I determined not to show the white feather.
I passed a row of cook-shacks like the one I had been in, and several stores and saloons. The lumber-camp was a little town. A rambling log cabin attracted me by reason of the shaggy mustangs standing before it and the sounds of mirth within. A peep showed me a room with a long bar, where men and boys were drinking. I heard the rattle of dice and the clink of silver. Seeing the place was crowded, I thought I might find Dick there, so I stepped inside. My entrance was unnoticed, so far as I could tell; in fact, there seemed no reason why it should be otherwise, for, being roughly dressed, I did not look very different from the many young fellows there. I scanned all the faces, but did not see Dick's, nor, for that matter, the Mexican's. Both disappointed and relieved, I turned away, for the picture of low dissipation was not attractive.
The hum of the great sawmill drew me like a magnet. I went out to the lumber-yard at the back of the mill, where a trestle slanted down to a pond full of logs. A train loaded with pines had just pulled in, and dozens of men were rolling logs off the flat-cars into a canal. At stations along the canal stood others pike-poling the logs toward the trestle, where an endless chain caught them with sharp claws and hauled them up. Half-way from, the ground they were washed clean by a circle of water-spouts.
I walked up the trestle and into the mill. Tho noise almost deafened me. High above all other sounds rose the piercing song of the saw, and the short intervals when it was not cutting were filled with a thunderous crash that jarred the whole building. After a few confused glances I got the working order into my head, and found myself in the most interesting place I had ever seen.
As the stream of logs came up into the mill the first log was shunted off the chain upon a carriage. Two men operated this carriage by levers, one to take the log up to the saw, and the other to run it back for another cut. The run back was very swift. Then a huge black iron head butted up from below and turned the log over as easily as if it had been a straw. This was what made the jar and crash. On the first cut the long strip of bark went to the left and up against five little circular saws. Then the five pieces slipped out of sight down chutes. When the log was trimmed a man stationed near the huge band-saw made signs to those on the carriage, and I saw that they got from him directions whether to cut the log into timbers, planks, or boards. The heavy timbers, after leaving the saw, went straight down the middle of the mill, the planks went to the right, the boards in another direction. Men and boys were everywhere, each with a lever in hand. There was not the slightest cessation of the work. And a log forty feet long and six feet thick, which had taken hundreds of years to grow, was cut up in just four minutes.
The place fascinated me. I had not dreamed that a sawmill could be brought to such a pitch of mechanical perfection, and I wondered how long the timber would last at that rate of cutting. The movement and din tired me, and I went outside upon a long platform. Here workmen caught the planks and boards as they came out, and loaded them upon trucks which were wheeled away. This platform was a world in itself. It sent arms everywhere among the piles of lumber, and once or twice I was as much lost as I had been up in the forest.
While turning into one of these byways I came suddenly upon Buell and another man. They were standing near a little house of weather-strips, evidently an office, and were in their shirt-sleeves. They had not seen or heard me. I dodged behind a pile of planks, intending to slip back the way I had come. Before I could move Buell's voice rooted me to the spot.
"His name's Ward. Tall, well-set lad. I put Greaser after him the other night, hopin' to scare him back East. But nix!"
"Well, he's here now--to study forestry! Ha! ha!" said the other.
"You're sure the boy you mean is the one I mean?"
"Greaser told me so. And this boy is Leslie's friend."
"That's the worst of it," replied Buell, impatiently. "I've got Leslie fixed as far as this lumber deal is concerned, but he won't stand for any more. He was harder to fix than the other rangers, an' I'm afraid of him." he's grouchy now.
"You shouldn't have let the boy get here."
"Stockton, I tried to prevent it. I put Greaser with Bud an' Bill on his trail. They didn't find him, an' now here he turns up."
"Maybe he can be fixed."
"Not if I know my business, he can't; take that from me. This kid is straight. He'll queer my deal in a minute if he gets wise. Mind you, I'm gettin' leary of Washington. We've seen about the last of these lumber deals. If I can pull this one off I'll quit; all I want is a little more time. Then I'll fire the slash, an' that'll cover tracks."
"Buell, I wouldn't want to be near Penetier when you light that fire. This forest will burn like tinder."
"It's a whole lot I care then. Let her burn. Let the Government put out the fire. Now, what's to be done about this boy?"
"I think I'd try to feel him out. Maybe he can be fixed. Boys who want to be foresters can't be rich. Failing that--you say he's a kid who wants to hunt and shoot--get some one to take him up on the mountain."
"See here, Stockton. This young Ward will see the timber is bein' cut clean. If it was only a little patch I wouldn't mind. But this slash an' this mill! He'll know. More'n that, he'll tell Leslie about the Mexican. Dick's no fool. We're up against it."
"It's risky, Buell. You remember the ranger up in Oregon."
"Then we are to fall down on this deal all because of a fresh tenderfoot kid?" demanded Buell.
"Not so loud. . . . We'll not fall down. But caution--use caution. You made a mistake in trusting so much to the Greaser."
"I know, an' I'm afraid of Leslie. An' that other fire-ranger, Jim Williams, he's a Texan, an' a bad man. The two of them could about trim up this camp. They'll both fight for the boy; take that from me."
"We are sure up against it. Think now, and think quick."
"First, I'll try to fix the boy. If that won't work . . . we'll kidnap him. Then we'll take no chances with Leslie. There's a cool two hundred an' fifty thousand in this deal for us, an' we're goin' to get it."
With that Buell went into his office and closed the door; the other man, Stockton, walked briskly down the platform. I could not resist peeping from my hiding-place as he passed. He was tall and had a red beard, which would enable me to recognize him if we met.
I waited there for some little time. Then I saw that by squeezing between two plies of lumber could reach the other side of the platform. When I reached the railing I climbed over, and, with the help of braces and posts, soon got to where I could drop down. Once on the ground I ran along under the platform until I saw a lane that led to the street. My one thought was to reach the cabin where the Negro cook stayed and ask him if Dick Leslie had come to camp. If he had not arrived, then I intended to make a bee-line for my mustang.